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VII. Anti-Crime Campaigns and Religious Repression

The Chinese government has periodically engaged in “Strike Hard” anti-crime campaigns that sweep up thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of alleged criminals in their wake. Intended to instill a sense of security in a public concerned about the increase in crime that has accompanied economic growth, these campaigns commonly result in the unlawful arrest and even wrongful execution of large numbers of people.163

According to Amnesty International, over 200 death sentences were recorded in Xinjiang as a result of such campaigns between 1997 and 2003, mostly under state security charges.164 Only a fraction of death penalty sentencing appears in the press, and undisclosed overall figures are classified as state secrets.

The last recorded instance of an execution for a separatist crime was in March 2003. The alleged offender, Shaheer Ali, had been forcibly repatriated from Nepal despite having been recognized as a refugee by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After repatriation he was tried secretly on separatism and terrorism charges.165

Local officials, anxious to show they are giving full attention to the campaigns, frequently appear to be more concerned with numbers than evidence. The characteristics of the Strike Hard campaign in Xinjiang mirror those observable in China more generally: summary trials, pressure on the judiciary to process a large number of cases in an extremely short time, and mass sentencing rallies. But in Xinjiang, religion appears to be as much the target as crime.

Chinese officials in Xinjiang equate the campaigns waged against ordinary crime with those targeting separatism, terrorism, and purported “illegal religious activities.” The CCP frequently claims that “separatists and anti-China forces use the cloak of religion to fan national separatism.”166 

Unrelenting crackdowns

Since 1996, the authorities have conducted at least nine province-wide anti-crime campaigns in Xinjiang that specifically included purported “illegal religious activities”:

1996: First “Strike Hard” campaign specifically targeting “splittism and illegal religious activities”;

1997: “Rectification of Social Order” campaign;

1998: “People’s war” drive against “separatist and religious extremists”;

1999: “Special 100 Days Strike Hard Fight” and “General Campaign against Terrorism”;

2000: “Focused Rectification of Religious Places Campaign”;

2001: Two-year “Strike Hard” launched, to last until June 2002;

2002: Post-September 11 “High Pressure Strike Hard” campaign;

2003: Launch of a special “100 Days Strike Hard” in October;

2004: “High Pressure Strike Hard” campaign against “separatism, religious extremism and terrorist forces” extended indefinitely.

Official accounts of these campaigns usually claim hundreds of arrests. Summary trials and sentencing is common, as courts are under orders to reduce judicial process to a minimum under the principle known as “the two basics” (liang ge jiben 两个基本). This principle sets out that only “basic truth” and “basic evidence” are required to proceed. According to instructions given by Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan at the outset of the 2001 Strike Hard campaign: “As long as the basic truth is clear and as long as the basic evidence is verified, prompt approval of arrest, prosecution, and court decisions are required.”167

Security and judicial bodies are also put under pressure to achieve arrest, sentencing, and mass rally quotas. This ideologically charged climate regarding any perceived form of dissent nullifies the already minimal procedural protections enjoyed by defendants in the Chinese judicial system.

Judges and court personnel in Kashgar are explicitly instructed to follow “political criteria” in carrying out their work. On the basis of the principle that “political criteria come first in the combat against separatism,” in 2003 the authorities designated as a target for “investigation and rectification” court officials whose “political ideas are not strong, who waver at the critical moment, and who do not want to shoulder leading responsibilities [in the fight against separatism],” according to an official account published on a website of the Supreme People’s Court.168

These anti-crime campaigns are specifically intended to include the targeting of religious activity. According to government accounts, the 1998 “People’s War” campaign, which led to the arrest of “several hundred terrorists,”169 imposed a “tightening of control on religion.”170 Authorities closed twenty-one “illegal religious spots” and arrested one group of reactionary “Talebs” (religious students) in Urumqi.171 In 1999, the “Special 100 Days Strike Hard” campaign featured religion, as one of the “three elements” targeted for crackdown. They included “leading elements of religious extremist forces,” “hardcore ethnic separatists,” and “violent terrorists.”172

In 2000, the crackdown focused on “the rectification of religious venues” and led to the arrest of religious activists preaching “a Holy War” in Hetian, Kashgar, Aksu, Ili, and other places.173 The authorities reported that they had closed sixty-four “illegal teaching venues” and seized a large number of “illegal publications” and “reactionary tapes and videotapes.”174 The reports also mentioned that religious activists preaching “a Holy War” had been contained in Hetian, Kashgar, Aksu, Ili, and other places.175 In April 2001, China’s Minister of Public Security disclosed that he had instructed the Autonomous Region in Xinjiang to carry out a two-year Strike Hard campaign aimed at “eliminating separatism and illegal religious activities.”176

Information on the extent of the post-September 11 anti-crime campaigns has been severely curtailed, but local accounts tell of an even more tense and repressive climate. As the Chinese government embarked on an effort to convince international observers of the legitimacy of its crackdown on Xinjiang’s Uighurs, local media apparently stopped carrying periodic reports on the results of these campaigns, which often had featured information such as numbers of people arrested and convicted, names of such individuals, and details of their sentences. A report on January 1, 2002 provided a rare insight into the extent of the post-September 11 crackdown, indicating that security forces had arrested 166 “violent terrorists and other criminals” in a campaign from September 20 to November 30, 2001.177

In 2002 and 2003, the authorities continued to wage a “strike hard, high pressure” campaign against the purported “three forces”––separatists, religious extremists, and terrorists. Official media reported in January 2004 that, “during the past twelve months, Xinjiang suppressed a number of terrorist and separatist gangs, and arrested numerous criminals.”178 No accounts of the trials were disclosed.

In September 2004, Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan disclosed that in the first eight months of the year, Chinese authorities had prosecuted twenty-two cases of groups and individuals for alleged “separatist and terrorist activities.” He said that courts in Xinjiang had passed fifty sentences, including an unspecified number of death sentences179 Because stringent state secrets regulations apply to religious and ethnic affairs, more time will be needed before the true picture of the scale and intensity of the most recent campaigns emerges.

Sweeps by law enforcement agencies

According to local residents in the Yili, Kashgar, and Hetian prefectures, the past few years have seen an increase in intrusive and targeted sweeps conducted by law enforcement agencies, generally the Public Security Bureau in conjunction with the People’s Armed Police. Security forces seal off an area, such as a neighborhood or a village, and conduct house-to-house searches. Law enforcement officers examine identity cards and household residence permits (hukou 户口), interrogate residents about the whereabouts of family members, and randomly search houses for “illegal publications.” The definition of illegal publications includes copies of the Koran not printed by government presses. People whose papers are not in order, or who do not have a city residence permit while living in a city, or who in some other way fall outside of the regulations are taken away in trucks or minibuses waiting at the periphery, and then transported to public security facilities for further checks.

Indirect accounts tell of the often brutal character of these house searches. Because law enforcement agencies refuse to reveal the location where detainees are held after these sweeps, it is particularly difficult for relatives to know what actually happens to the detainees. Some people put in custody during sweeps are detained for long periods without charge; others are convicted or sent to reeducation through labor. Others are released.

Charges brought for offenses related to religion generally range from “disrupting public order” to “endangering state security.” Most of those detained are fined, and relatives maintain that in many cases corrupt officials force the family to “buy” their relatives freedom. “Problem” households—in which a family member has fallen afoul of the law, is imprisoned, is on the run, or is simply out of the country—are particularly vulnerable during sweeps.

The manner in which sweeps are conducted suggests that intimidation is one of the objectives. As one villager told Human Rights Watch:

In my home village [in Aktush prefecture], the militia regularly come to check villagers. They come during the night, searching house by house, and if they find religious material they take you for questioning. They say it’s “illegal religious publications.” My father is a simple farmer, what does he know if his Koran is illegal or not?180

Many Uighurs interviewed for this report claimed that law enforcement agencies and officials are systematically using the campaign against separatism and illegal religious activities to elicit bribes, to impose arbitrary fines, and to blackmail families to pay for the release of their relatives in custody. One informant returning from Hetian told Human Rights Watch that following a crackdown on “illegal religious activities” in the area in spring 2003, many families had to pay for the release of their relatives, most of them young men between sixteen and twenty-five  years old.181 Complaints about widespread corruption among law enforcement officers are common. According to a young farmer from a village near Hetian:

Corruption! There is so much of it. You have to pay for everything, give presents to officials, to the police, etc. We even have to pay for the militia because officially “the people’s militia is supported by the people.” They take your property right in your home, but what can you do. If you complain to the authorities, they will retaliate or even label you a “trouble maker.” They call you “separatist” and you are finished. We are Uighurs, so we have no rights.182

[163] See Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002, section “China and Tibet,” available at Legal scholars have written in details about the causal relation between “strike hard” campaigns and abuses. For instance, Professor Scott Tanner writes that “Police and procuratorial experts agree with the judgment of international human rights monitors that during “strike hard” anti-crime campaigns professionalism is further undermined, causing torture cases to spike. Local Communist Party leaders, who are also under evaluated by their superiors on the state of local social order, turn up the pressure on local police to solve cases quickly. According to one police official, many officers “find it hard to resist this fast and effective interrogation technique.” “Torture in China: Calls for Reform from within China's Law Enforcement System,” Prepared Statement to Accompany Testimony Before the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, July 26, 2002, available at

[164] Amnesty International, “People's Republic of China: No justice for the victims of the 1997 crackdown in Gulja (Yining),” February 4, 2003, [AI Index: ASA 17/011/2003].

[165] Amnesty International, “China: Further information on Fear of Forcible Return,” October 24, 2003, [AI Index: ASA 17/037/2003].

[166] Protect the Unity of the Motherland: a Handbook (Urumqi: Xinjiang People’s Publishing House, 1996), p. 162. [维护祖国统一:简明读本 (乌鲁木齐:新疆人民出版社), 第162页].

[167] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], April 16, 2001, in “Xinjiang Party Secretary Addresses Meeting on Public Order,” FBIS, [CHI-2001-052].

[168] “Visible achievements in the political strengthening of Kashgar Intermediate Court,”, February 19, 2003 [“喀什中院政治建院凸显成效,” 中国法院网, 2003-02-19].

[169] “Hundreds of Muslim Activists Arrested,” South China Morning Post, February. 2, 1999.

[170] Ibid.

[171] Urumqi Yearbook 1999, p. 85.

[172] Xinjiang Yearbook 2000 (Urumqi: Xinjiang Yearbook Publishing House, 2001) [新疆年鉴2001, 乌鲁木齐:新疆年鉴出版社,2001], p. 95.

[173] Xinjiang Yearbook 2001 (Urumqi: Xinjiang Yearbook Publishing House, 2002) [新疆年鉴2002, 乌鲁木齐:新疆年鉴出版社,2002].

[174] Ibid.

[175] Ibid.

[176] Quoted in “PRC's Xinjiang Anti-Crime Campaign Targets Muslim Separatists,” Agence France-Presse, April 27, 2001.

[177] Xinjiang Daily [新疆日报], January 1, 2002.

[178] “Xinjiang deepens the Strike hard against the ‘three forces’: A number of terrorist gangs already suppressed ‘Xinjiang’,” China News Agency, January 17, 2004 [“深挖严打”三股势力”已打掉一批恐怖团伙,” 中新网, 2004年1月17日].

[179] “China convicts 50 to death in ‘terror crackdown,’” Reuters, September 13, 2004.

[180] Human Rights Watch interviews with informant E, Kashgar, July 1999.

[181] Human Rights Watch interview with an overseas scholar, Hong Kong, September 2003.

[182] Human Rights Watch interview with informant F, Hetian, July 1999.

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